Why Do Supreme Court Nominees Have ‘Sherpas’?

The term is a case study in how words from Asian languages work their way into English, often with an exoticizing air that masks more complex cultural histories.

The Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh on Capitol Hill. His "sherpa," former Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona, smiles in the background. (Leah Mills / Reuters)

When Donald Trump nominated Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, one of the first items of business was selecting someone who would guide the judge through the Senate’s ritualistic confirmation process. Former Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona was tapped for the job: He would be Kavanaugh’s “sherpa.”

Last year, former Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire served as the sherpa for Neil Gorsuch in his own confirmation hearings. “Well, it’s kind of a funny name,” she acknowledged in a recent NPR interview, “’cause a sherpa means bringing someone up a mountain.”

How did a term for a guide on Himalayan mountaineering expeditions get transposed to the halls of Congress? It’s a case study in how words from Asian languages work their way into English, often with an exoticizing air that masks more complex cultural histories. English, of course, is notorious for indiscriminately borrowing words from other languages. (As James Nicoll once memorably observed, “On occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.”) But in the case of words like sherpa, it’s worth reflecting on what kind of baggage English speakers are making them carry as they scale linguistic peaks.

“Sherpa” is the name of a major ethnolinguistic group in the Himalayas with a population of more than 200,000. The “Sherpa” name, which literally means “people of the East,” first started showing up in English-language travel accounts in the mid-19th century, but it took until the 1950s for the Sherpas to reach international exposure. That was thanks to the huge publicity around Edmund Hillary’s ascent to the summit of Mount Everest with his guide, Tenzing Norgay. Norgay, like other local guides, was ethnically Sherpa, so the word sherpa in the public imagination came to mean a trusty sidekick on a high-altitude expedition or something similarly perilous.

Hillary and Norgay’s conquest of Everest in 1953 also put the word summit in the headlines, at a time when Winston Churchill was calling for a “parley at the summit” that would bring together the leaders of the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union. Thanks to that confluence of events, summit became the standard term for any high-level diplomatic meeting (as I discussed recently in a Wall Street Journal column).

With international summitry borrowing the language of mountaineering, it’s not surprising that the word sherpa came to be applied to government officials who help their country’s leaders navigate through the tricky terrain of diplomacy. It became a popular term at the Group of Seven summits, starting with the fifth such conference, held in Tokyo in 1979. “Economic summit planners, led by U.S. Roving Ambassador Henry Owen, are feeling overworked these days,” United Press International’s Helen Thomas reported. “They have started calling themselves ‘Sherpas,’ after the sturdy Nepalese porters who help Westerners climb the Himalayan mountains.”

Even if sherpa started off as self-deprecating slang for underappreciated members of the diplomatic corps, it eventually became official summit speak: The website for the latest G7 meeting explains, “G7 leaders appoint personal representatives, known as Sherpas, to attend these meetings to discuss potential agenda items.”

Sherpa made its way to Capitol Hill, and it came in handy in 2005 when George W. Bush had to fill two openings on the Supreme Court, following the death of William Rehnquist (replaced by John Roberts) and the retirement of Sandra Day O’Connor (replaced by Samuel Alito, after the aborted nomination of Harriet Miers). A Washington Post article from that eventful year explained how the role of the Washington, D.C. sherpa is “a critical and routine part of the Washington odyssey that high-profile nominees go through on their way to the high court or top Cabinet posts.” As with the use of sherpa at international summits, the word may have started off as a joking designation but now is the standard term for those helping a president’s nominees get confirmed in the Senate.

Few Americans have many interactions with real-life Sherpas (except, perhaps, if you shop for outdoor gear at the Tent & Trails store in Manhattan, where an experienced Sherpa guide named Serap Jangbu works, as revealed in a fascinating Deadspin profile). Despite that lack of familiarity—or perhaps because of it—the word sherpa has become a trendy word in business circles for people marketing themselves as experienced guides of various kinds. As Vickie Elmer wrote for Quartz in 2013, the corporate world now has “strategy sherpas,” “ideas sherpas,” “Human Resources Sherpas,” “startup sherpas,” and “social media sherpas.”  “What sounds unusual or noteworthy to consultants and coaches,” Elmer writes, “sounds disrespectful to some Sherpas who object to their heritage being appropriated as a branding tool or title.”

Something similar has happened to the word guru, as I discussed in a recent installment of the NPR podcast Code Switch. What began as a Sanskrit-based term for a respected spiritual teacher became applied to anyone with a modicum of expertise. That semantic broadening started in the mid- to late-’60s, when Eastern spiritual practices got embraced by the counterculture, and figures like Maharishi Mahesh Yogi—the guru to the Beatles—achieved cultural prominence.

Tom Wolfe, who provided so many additions to the English lexicon, got the ball rolling with this more expansive use of guru. In a 1965 profile of Marshall McLuhan in the New York Herald Tribune, Wolfe called the media-studies pioneer a “pop Guru.” McLuhan, a charismatic speaker given to oracular pronouncements, struck many as having guru-like qualities, and he’d later be dubbed a “communications guru” and a “multi-media guru.” McLuhan’s friend Timothy Leary, meanwhile, was called a “psychedelic guru” in 1966, thanks to his advocacy of LSD.

Guru crossed over to the more straitlaced business world, with the prominent consultant Peter Drucker being called a “management guru” as early as 1969. Drucker didn’t much care for the guru label, later saying, “I have been saying for many years that we are using the word guru only because charlatan is too long to fit into a headline.”

Guru, like sherpa, has become largely disconnected from its cultural origins, now simply serving as a trendy label for an expert. The branding expert Nancy Friedman, writing for Visual Thesaurus in 2013, noted that yet another term from an Asian language, ninja, had joined guru and sherpa in the “competition to come up with creative job titles.” Ninja has its own exotic air from pop-culture portrayals of feudal Japan. And speaking of Japanese, the Supreme Court confirmation process that requires a sherpa is often described as kabuki, as I wrote recently in The Wall Street Journal.

While American use of these terms often goes unnoticed, it’s worth taking a moment to think about exactly how such lexical borrowings from Asian languages often represent a facile kind of cultural appropriation, used as a kind of shorthand latent with stereotypes about the inscrutable East. It may look good on a LinkedIn profile, but you might want to think twice about calling yourself a sherpa, guru, or ninja just to add a dash of exoticism.